Firefighters pour water on the Colby Square Apartments on Dec. 21, 2017. (Caleb Hutton / Herald file)

Firefighters pour water on the Colby Square Apartments on Dec. 21, 2017. (Caleb Hutton / Herald file)

Arsonist pleads guilty in fatal Colby Square apartment fire

William Matthews told police he started the fire as a cry for help. He killed an Everett woman.

EVERETT — A man pleaded guilty Friday to manslaughter and arson for setting a north Everett apartment complex ablaze, killing a woman and destroying 14 homes.

Elsie Flynn, 76, was in fragile health in late 2017. She suffered from emphysema and needed 2 liters of oxygen each day, according to charging papers. She lived on the second floor of the Colby Square Apartments, next to the stairs.

William Matthews, 41, used a cigarette lighter to ignite an artificial tree in the stairwell late Dec. 21, 2017. Flames engulfed the only exit, in the bend of the two-story, L-shaped complex at 2229 Colby Ave.

Matthews was homeless. He later told police he didn’t mean to hurt anyone, but he was so sick of being on the street that he “could not take it anymore, and the kid inside of him said he needed to do something to cause a distraction and get attention that is negative,” according to the charges.

As the flames spread at 10:20 p.m., people jumped from the second story to safety. Firefighters called for a third alarm, battling heavy smoke and arcing power lines.

It took about an hour to get the fire under control.

Meanwhile, a neighbor leaned a ladder against the north side of the building, so Flynn and her daughter could climb down. Flynn was unconscious by the time she reached the ground. She died four days later, on Christmas Day. An autopsy showed she died of respiratory failure, triggered by the smoke and the effort to escape. Her death was classified as homicide.

Twenty people were displaced from the complex’s 14 units, according to the Everett Fire Department. About a quarter of the building had fire damage, and almost all of it had water damage.

An investigation aided by the federal Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives showed the fire was arson, sparked in the northeast corner of the stairwell.

Ten minutes before someone called 911, Matthews had stopped to shout at a police officer in the neighborhood. The officer, who knew Matthews from past encounters, saw him walking within 25 feet of the Colby Square parking lot.

Police tracked down Matthews and interviewed him on Jan. 22, 2018, in Bellingham. He explained he suffers from post-traumatic stress from things that happened to him as a young man, making it difficult for him to live in shelters. At first he denied setting the Christmas decorations on fire. Eventually he told police he didn’t mean to hurt anyone.

The building’s owner, Jim Addington, said the average tenant lived in Colby Square for five years. Around the time of Matthews’ arrest, he pledged to rebuild the apartments. Construction workers were still rebuilding as of this week.

“There’s no ‘why’ that will ever make sense,” Addington said in early 2018. “But I’m glad that someone responsible is being held accountable, for all the residents there.”

Matthews had no longstanding ties to Snohomish County. His roots were in New Jersey, where he had a record of drug crimes and, in one case, throwing bodily fluids at law enforcement.

Prosecutors originally charged him with first-degree murder for the fire.

Since then, Matthews has grown a long reddish beard and ponytail. A plea agreement was reached after the defense compiled a history of Matthews’ mental health struggles.

The defendant admitted guilt Friday afternoon to first-degree manslaughter and first-degree arson. Under state guidelines, he faces 9¼ to 12¼ years in prison.

His sentencing hearing has been set for June 11.

Caleb Hutton: 425-339-3454; Twitter: @snocaleb.

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